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Drug Possession Overview

Drug Possession: Definition

Federal and state drug possession laws make it a crime to willfully possess illegal controlled substances such as marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, "club drugs," and heroin. These laws also criminalize the possession of "precursor" chemicals used in drug cultivation and manufacturing, as well as certain accessories related to drug use. Drug possession laws vary according to drug type, amount, and geographic area of the offense. Possession of small quantities may be deemed "simple" possession, while possession of large amounts may result in a charge of presumed "possession with intent to distribute."

Requirements to Prove Possession of Drugs

Possession of certain illicit drugs violates federal and state laws. While drug possession laws vary widely from state to state, the elements of the offense are generally the same. Prosecutors must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew the drug in question was a controlled substance, and that he or she knowingly had possession of, or control over, the drug. This may also include what is known as "constructive possession," or access to an illegal drug. Such charges may be filed against one or more individuals who have keys to a van filled with narcotics, for example, rather than actually holding the drugs on their person.

Drug possession laws generally fall into one of two main categories: simple possession (for personal use) and possession with intent to distribute. The latter category typically carries much stiffer penalties upon conviction, as compared to simple possession, in the interest of both punishing and deterring drug dealers. To prove possession with intent to sell, prosecutors may present evidence such as digital scales, baggies, large quantities of the drug, large amounts of cash in small bills or testimony from witnesses.

Drug Paraphernalia Included within Possession Crimes

Drug possession laws also prohibit paraphernalia such as syringes, crack pipes or bongs. The Federal Drug Paraphernalia Statute defines what constitutes drug paraphernalia but usually hinges on a determination of primary use. For example, a newly purchased water pipe may not be considered a marijuana bong unless it has drug residue or is sold explicitly as a marijuana bong. Laws also exist to restrict the possession of certain chemicals or materials commonly used in the cultivation or manufacturing of drugs, such as the laboratory equipment used to make methamphetamine.

While some states have legalized possession of marijuana for medical use with a physician's recommendation, it is still considered illegal in all cases under federal law. See FindLaw's overview of medical marijuana laws for more information.

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